CALL WEEKEND FOR SENIOR PASTOR CANDIDATE DR. ROBERT STEPHENS - DECEMBER 10 & 11

Reflections from Hampton

Pastor Reed Bernick

Most of the Pastoral Staff is at the Hampton Convention Center this week for the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV). I have family in Virginia Beach and grew up there, so making the drive down felt a bit like coming home – or at least going 90% of the way. We’ve had a great time together – which I think I can say for all of us – but without reporting on the minutia of each business session, let me record a few thoughts I’ve had since arriving. I’ll put them in a list but not in any particular order.

1. I have a lot to learn about leadership. It’s not unusual for there to be lots of talk about ‘leadership’ at the BGAV – but that’s been especially true this year. Our Executive Director for the past 27 years announced his retirement about a year ago, and on Wednesday morning – should everything happen as expected – the messengers will vote in his successor, Dr. Wayne Faison. To know anything at all about the BGAV is to come into contact with Upton’s influence and legacy. He’s presided over drastic change in Virginia Baptist life, and more than that, he’s boldly led his constituency to embrace that change: to launch new initiatives, to consider innovative practices, to partner with other creative and entrepreneurial leaders, and more generally, to lead the BGAV slowly and deliberately into becoming an organization whose scope far exceeds the typical boundaries of a state association.

It's a deeply humbling experience to be surrounded by so many gifted pastors – Upton and others like him. I haven’t always felt that way, sure, but with every additional year in ministry, my naivete shrinks and my appreciation grows – knowing a little more about how difficult it is to successfully shepherd people and make disciples; i.e. to remain faithful to my calling. These are men and women who are careful and deliberate about stewarding their influence; people who understand, at a strategic level, what it looks like to equip and commission other Christians; how to multiply themselves in those they lead. I need to learn how to do that.

2. Making friends is a choice. I’ve attended the annual meeting now about 5 or 6 times over the last 7 years. I remember attending my first in 2015 – and really, with the exception of Kim and Don, I didn’t know a soul. It can be an isolating experience to find a place to sit in a conference center – or just to kill time when everyone around you seems so busy catching up and swapping stories. But gradually, that’s changed. It didn’t happen over night, but this year – even more than the last – I have friends and colleagues I need to talk to – people to eat with – relationships to deepen.

There have been moments over these past years where it was hard for me to imagine that the BGAV would ever feel like family. But through a lot of deliberate work – a lot of intentional effort on my part and the part of others who invited me along or made an introduction – loneliness has been replaced by trust. Initiating a contact, setting up a time to get coffee, taking even a small risk to divulge an opinion or a thought, making an investment of time in another person – I’ve been building my network slowly and purposefully. I have come to know others and they have come to know me. To see that blossom so abundantly this year has been a reminder of God’s faithfulness in my life and an answer to prayer.

3. Foundational and accidental. Some BGAV meetings I’ve attended have felt like they revolve around a certain featured speaker or idea. Either there’s a compelling message or vision or some new program is being launched and communicated – but whatever the case may be, the main entrée of the gathering is part and parcel of the program. This year has felt different, though. The import has simply been connecting with other pastors and leaders – maybe in a less formal way, but certainly in a meaningful way nonetheless.  And one of the red threads running through these interactions – at least from my perspective – something I’ll be processing for a while, I’m sure – has focused on discipleship strategy: basically that far too often churches gather people any way they know how (whatever it takes – felt needs, wants, desires, help) in order to give those people something they may or may not have shown interest in originally (Jesus – and faith in him). The crucial move in discipleship, therefore, becomes about facilitating an adjustment in people’s mind. An adjustment where Jesus – who can far too often be accidental in our gathering strategies – comes to take up a more foundational position in someone’s life.

4. Discipleship methods change. Along those same lines: it’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that the methods I’m using for ministry now will someday become obsolete. Not that the gospel changes at all or needs to – only that strategies inevitably do, and that despite our willingness to adjust and adapt, there will inevitably be some ways in which the methods I use today will expire or come in need of adjustment and reform. It can be all to easy to critique traditions and past models of doing church, sure. But it’s humbling to realize that – however sincere I am, and however successful I may be – my sum total contribution to the Church’s ministry and practice will one day look just as antiquated.

5. The Church is on the brink of some major changes. The guest speaker at the BGAV this year is Carey Nieuwhof – a popular Christian author, podcaster, and influencer. Carey challenged the messengers at our meeting to consider what it might be like in 2023 to look back and list some of the major trends of the last decade. It was an interesting thought experiment and yielded plenty of insight about digital/virtual ministry especially.

Other leaders have shared statistics and studies reporting on massive change in the church; change that the Pandemic didn’t necessarily create but certainly accelerated. It’s a sobering picture. But as one presenter put it, there will always be seasons of pruning and seasons of growth – and it’s anyone's guess as to exactly where in that rhythm we are situated. Will things continue to deteriorate – or are we on the edge of a third Great Awakening? Are the downward trends in attendance – trends which all churches are facing – just a prelude to something much brighter and more meaningful? No one knows. I only know that we are called to be faithful in the time we do have – so as to equip the church for any of those contingencies on the road ahead.

Thanks for reading!

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